The Empty Canvas, p.18Alberto Moravia
'No, I only meant that Balestrieri was very fond of Cecilia. For you, it's different. But Balestrieri—really you might almost say he was dying of love for Cecilia! '
It was on the tip of my tongue to say: 'In fact he did die of it.' But instead, I asked: 'Did you see him often?'
'Often? Why, almost every day. He was like one of the family. There was always a place for him at table. But you mustn't think he was inconsiderate—quite the contrary.'
'How d'you mean?'
'Oh well, he always tried to pay us back. He helped with the shopping, he used to buy this or that. And then he would send cakes, wine, flowers. "I've no family of my own", he used to say, "this is my family now. You must look upon me as a relation." Poor man, he was separated from his wife and lived alone.'
Cecilia, at this point, said: 'Professor, give me your plate. Give me yours, Mother, and yours, Dad.' She put the four plates and the four bowls one on top of the other and left the room. As soon as Cecilia had disappeared, her father, who, during the funeral oration upon Balestrieri delivered by his wife, had merely looked from one to the other of us with his frightened, imploring eyes, made as though to speak in my direction. I leant forward a little and the invalid opened his mouth and made a vigorous attempt to say something, which I did not understand. His wife got up, went to the sideboard without saying a word and fetched a notebook and pencil which she placed on the table beside her husband, saying: 'Write it down, the Professor doesn't understand you.'
But, with a violent gesture, he swept the notebook and pencil on to the floor. His wife said: 'We understand him, but strangers hardly ever do. We've told him so many times to write things down, but he won't. He says he's not dumb. He's not, but if other people don't understand him it would be better for him to write things down, don't you think?'
Her husband shot a furious glance at her and then started speaking to me again. In a sad, resigned voice, his wife said: 'He says he didn't like Balestrieri.' She shook her head in genuine pity and distress, and then added: 'Goodness knows what poor Balestrieri did to him!'
Her husband again said something, in a forcible manner. His wife interpreted: 'He says that Balestrieri bossed him in his own house.'
Her husband was now staring at her with a positively anguished look in his eyes. Then, in the desperately emphatic way of a dumb man who cannot contrive to make himself understood, he opened his mouth wide and once more blew his incomprehensible noises into my face. Cecilia had now come into the room again, and I saw her raise her eyes and look at me. Her mother went on: 'My husband says ridiculous things. Did you understand what he was saying?'
I had the impression that she hesitated for a moment; then she explained: 'He says Balestrieri tried to make love to me.' She uttered these words with an air of anxiety, looking not at me but at her husband, eyeing him with an intensity in which sadness, entreaty and reproof appeared to be mingled. I turned towards him and saw that, in a way, his wife's glance had had its effect. He now appeared crushed and mortified, like a dog that has been kicked. Looking already more relieved, his wife said: 'Balestrieri liked to pay me compliments—oh yes, indeed, and to have a joke with me too, to flirt a little, in fact. But that was all. That was really all. No, Professor,' she went on, speaking of her husband as if he had not been present or had been an inanimate object, rather as Cecilia had done a little earlier, 'my husband is a very good, fine man, but his brain goes on working and working all the time—you've only to look at his eyes. It's the thoughts that he turns round and round in his head all day. His brain goes on working and working and working, and then he comes out with something ridiculous.'
I glanced at her husband, who was sitting quietly now, hurt and crestfallen, rolling his frightened eyes hither and thither and gathering breadcrumbs together with his fingers; and all of a sudden a plausible interpretation of his quickly cooled anger flashed across my mind. This was that he had got wind of there being something between Balestrieri and Cecilia; or at any rate that Balestrieri's feelings towards Cecilia were not quite as fatherly as he had wished her parents to believe. This was the accusation which he had shouted in his wife's face; she, however, had hastily substituted herself for her daughter, explaining that her husband was jealous because he had imagined that Balestrieri was trying to make love to her.
What I still wished to know was why Cecilia's mother had wanted to conceal the true significance of her husband's words from me. In order not to pass on an accusation which seemed to her false and unseemly? Or because she had always suspected something, and had taken full advantage of Balestrieri's self-interested generosity, even perhaps without realizing that he and Cecilia were lovers? Or, finally, because she had known all the time of the relationship between her daughter and the old painter and had accepted presents and favours in full consciousness of it? These three hypotheses, as I saw at once, were all equally plausible, although quite different and of varying importance. As I turned these thoughts over in my mind I looked at Cecilia and realized once more that, fundamentally, everything that I was discovering during my visit did not concern her; in other words that, even in the worst case, that is, even if her mother had known of the relationship and had derived material advantages from it in agreement with her daughter, I would not be able to say I had learned anything decisive about Cecilia. And this for the good reason that Cecilia, with her family, was like a sleep-walker amongst pieces of furniture in his own home: she excluded them from her own consciousness.
Lunch ended in an unexpected way. After we had each eaten a small red and green apple, Cecilia's father suddenly rose to his feet and, trailing his unsteady legs in trousers so wide and loose that they appeared to have nothing inside them, went out of the room, to reappear a moment later wearing an overcoat too big for him, and with his face half hidden by the brim of a hat which looked as if it did not belong to him. He waved his hand to me from a distance, then added some remark or other, pointing to the windows which were now brightened by a feeble round ball of a sun. 'He says he's going for a walk,' explained his wife, rising in her turn, 'and I must go with him. We'll take a little turn and then I'll go with him to the cinema and leave him there, because the shop opens at four. Ah, it's a heavy cross to bear, Professor, a man reduced to such a state.' She added a few more remarks of the same kind on the subject of her husband, who meanwhile was waiting for her in the doorway at the far end of the room, looking like a scarecrow; then she said good-bye to me, told Cecilia to be careful and shut the door properly when we left, and went out. Her husband went with her. After a moment I heard her voice in the hall, saying something I could not catch; then the door closed and there was silence.
Cecilia and I had remained in our places, some distance from one another, at the untidy table. After a moment I said: 'So these are the parents who, according to you, complained because we saw each other every day?'
She got up and started clearing the table without saying a word. It was her way of answering embarrassing questions, as I knew. But I persisted. 'How can you expect me to believe that a father and mother like yours really made trouble?'
'Why, what is there special about my father and mother?'
'Nothing special. If anything, it's something very ordinary.'
'What d'you mean?'
'I mean that they're parents who don't seem to me to be too severe.'
'And yet it's true, they did complain because we saw each other too often.'
'Perhaps your father did, but not your mother.'
'Why not my mother?'
'Because your mother knew about Balestrieri. And if she didn't complain on his account, why should she on mine?'
'I've already told you she knew nothing.'
'Well then, if she knew nothing, why did she change the words your father said today?'
'Do you think I didn't notice? What your father actually said was that he didn't like Balestrieri because he made love to you; but your mother tried to make m
She hesitated, then admitted, reluctantly: 'Yes, it is.'
'Then let me ask you again: if your mother really knew nothing of your relations with Balestrieri, what need was there for her to make me think that Balestrieri was making love to her?'
'Because it was true,' she answered simply.
'What was true?'
'I myself told Balestrieri to make love to Mother. In that way she wouldn't notice that he was in love with me.'
'Very correct, and very ingenious too. And did your mother believe in Balestrieri's love-making?'
'She certainly did.'
'But your father—he didn't believe in it, did he?'
'No, he didn't.'
'One day he saw us, Balestrieri and me.'
'What did he see?'
'He saw him kissing me.'
'And he didn't tell your mother?'
'Yes, he told her, but she didn't believe it, because Balestrieri was making love to her all the time; so she told my father he had invented it because he was jealous.'
'Did Balestrieri go on coming to the house after that?'
'Yes, he went on coming, but we were more careful. So much so that in the end Dad almost thought he had made a mistake. But he went on hating Balestrieri. When he saw him arrive, he went out.'
The table was cleared by now, and Cecilia was putting the chairs back in their proper places. As she passed close to me, I pulled her to me by the arm and made her sit down, reluctantly and absent-mindedly, on my knee. 'Shall we go to my studio soon?' I asked.
I noticed that she glanced at her wrist-watch. Then she replied: 'I'm expecting a telephone call.'
'What's that got to do with it?'
'It depends on the telephone call whether I can come to the studio or not.'
'Who is going to telephone you?'
She considered me for a moment with an indefinable, thoughtful expression and then answered: 'It's a film producer, to make an appointment to see me. If the appointment is in a short time, I'm afraid I shall not be able to come.'
I was at once sure that she was lying. The thing that betrayed her was her tone of voice, which was of an excessive naturalness such as is achieved only when a person is lying. 'Why not tell the truth?' I said. 'It's the actor who is going to telephone you.'
'I saw him yesterday,' she said unexpectedly, seeking to foist a twenty-four-hour old truth upon me, I decided, in order to conceal her lie of a moment earlier. 'We went together to see a producer. I don't have to see him every day.'
'Was it a producer you went to see yesterday, too?'
'It's the same one. It was Luciani who gave me an introduction. The producer couldn't see me yesterday and sent a message that he would telephone me today.'
I noticed how plausible it all was. And perhaps it was all true, even in detail, for I knew that Cecilia, on the occasions when she was forced to tell a lie, did so by building up an edifice of falsehood with the materials of truth. 'Come on,' I insisted, 'it is Luciani who is going to telephone you. Why shouldn't you admit it?'
'There's no reason why I shouldn't, but it isn't true.'
'Well then, if it's not true, let me go and answer the telephone for you.'
'All right, if you like.'
Her willingness to agree made me think that there might be an arrangement between her and Luciani, as often happens between lovers: if it was she who answered, Luciani would declare himself for who he was: if somebody else, he would say he was the producer. With some bitterness, I said: 'No, I don't want to put you to the test. I only want you to understand one thing, just one thing.'
'That I don't want you to love me, I want you to tell me the truth. I would rather you told me you were going to see Luciani today, if it's true that you are, than that you should tell me you're not going to see him, just in order to please me.'
We looked at one another. Then, with a gesture that was almost tender, she stroked my cheek. 'My truth,' she said, 'is that I'm not seeing Luciani today. Would you rather I told you your truth—that I am seeing him?'
Thus Cecilia, without intending it, let it be seen that truth and falsehood were, for her, the same thing, and that, fundamentally, neither truth nor falsehood existed. Suddenly, from the passage, came the ringing of the telephone. Cecilia jumped off my knee, exclaiming: 'The telephone!' and ran out of the room. I followed her.
The telephone was at the far end of the passage and at the darkest part of it, on a shelf. I saw Cecilia take off the receiver, place it to her ear and then immediately say: 'Good day.' I went and stood beside her, and she, as though she wished to conceal and protect the black vulcanite instrument into which she was speaking and out of which someone was speaking to her, suddenly turned her back upon me. The conversation continued; but I noticed that Cecilia answered in monosyllables or in words even more insignificant—if that was possible—than those with which she usually expressed herself; and all at once I was convinced that it was the actor at the other end of the line, that he and Cecilia were arranging a meeting, and that Cecilia was unfaithful to me with him. At the same time I became aware that I felt a violent desire for her, lying to me as she was, and therefore evading me and therefore becoming real and attractive; as if, by having her there and then, in the passage, while she was talking to her lover, I might be able to possess her at the very moment when, by means of the telephone, she was withdrawing herself from possession. I stood right up against her, as I had done shortly before in the bathroom; and from the barely perceptible hint of a movement of her buttocks against my belly, I seemed to understand that not merely would she not be opposed to an embrace so inconvenient and so unusual, but would even welcome it, as though to compensate me, by means of a false surrender, for the true surrender of herself which she was at the same moment making to the man who was telephoning to her. And I was pressing myself against her, filled with anger and desire, when I recalled that Balestrieri had had her in the kitchen in the same manner and, probably, with the same feeling. I drew back abruptly; Cecilia felt that I was no longer standing close against her and threw me a questioning glance over her shoulder; then, still talking on the telephone, she put out her free hand behind her and clasped mine. I allowed her to do this and leant against the wall behind her, my face bowed down on my chest, my mind in confusion. Finally Cecilia said: 'Well, good-bye, see you soon'; then she replaced the receiver and stood for a moment deep in thought, her hand in mine. 'I'm sorry,' she said at last, turning towards me, 'but I shan't be able to come to the studio today. I'm expected in half an hour by that film producer.'
'Very well, I'll leave you at once.'
'Wait a little; and now come with me.'
She walked in front of me down the passage towards her room. She went in first; as soon as I had come in, she carefully closed the door. 'Would you like to make love now—here?' she asked. 'But we must be quick about it, because I really haven't time.'
Faced with this very charming, very cynical proposal, I felt once again that desire for her which seemed never to be satisfied, for the simple reason that it was not her body—always so ready and so docile—which I desired, but the whole of her. I said, however: 'No, don't think of that now. I don't like doing things in a hurry.'
'But we needn't be in a hurry. Only that I shall have to run away immediately afterwards.'
'No, I'm not like Balestrieri, it's of no consequence to me to make love in your home.'
'How does Balestrieri come into it?'
'Talking about Balestrieri—there's one thing I want you to tell me.'
'That time you made love in the kitchen, had there been an argument, a quarrel, a disagreement between you shortly before?'
'How can you expect me to remember? It happened such a long time ago.'
'Try and remember.'
'Yes, everything: whom I saw, where I went, what I did.'
'And had you had an argument of this kind on that occasion?'
'Yes, I believe we had.'
'How did it finish?'
'It finished in the usual way.'
'What d'you mean by that?'
'There came a point when I stopped answering him, and then he wanted to make love.'
'Just like me!' I could not help exclaiming.
'No, you're exactly the opposite, you don't want to make love. Come on, then, why shouldn't we?'
She gave me a tempting look, as though she felt herself to be in debt to me and wished to pay me back at all costs, so as not to have to think about it any more. I should have liked to reply: 'I don't want to make love because I don't want to do the same things as Balestrieri.' But instead, kissing her on the neck, I said: 'We'll do it tomorrow at my studio, calmly.' She shook her head in sign of slight disappointment, then went and opened the wardrobe, took out the parcel containing the bag and removed the tissue paper. 'D'you see?' she said, smiling at me, 'I'm using your bag.'
We left the room and went out of the flat. Cecilia walked downstairs in front of me, and as I followed her I thought over what had happened. I told myself that, although the effort had been almost superhuman, I had avoided making love to her in the passage in spite of a furious desire to do so; that is, I had avoided, this time at least, doing precisely the same thing that Balestrieri had done before me; and yet this was only a tiny episode in a passion which, in its more general development tended increasingly to resemble the passion which the old painter had felt for Cecilia. I was able, in fact, thanks to a clearer consciousness of the situation, to prevent myself from acting like Balestrieri on particular occasions; but it looked as though I was not capable of halting my progress along the road that he had followed before me to the bitter end. When we reached the entrance hall, I said brusquely to Cecilia; 'Good-bye, then.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes